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Why I cross my fingers and hold my thumbs

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Even childhood anxiety gets a bi-cultural spin

Each morning before my children leave for school, they stop their chattering long enough to ask me to “cross my fingers” and “hold my thumbs” for them while we’re apart. Anna, the oldest, initiates the request and the boys chime in. You might think they wouldn’t need to ask. They should know that I’m rooting for them to do their best and to experience good fortune throughout their day. I’m their mother. I guess they want to hear it out loud. In both native languages.

While crossing your fingers is a sign of luck in the English language, holding your thumbs is its equivalent in Czech. Since we are a bilingual and bi-cultural family; we do both. Because it wouldn’t be fair to give one culture more weight than the other. Physically, it’s tricky but feasible to do both at once. First, I cross my index and middle finger, then I wrap my fingers over my thumbs which are tucked into my palms.

Although the boys are satisfied by this public display of encouragement, Anna comes back time after time for just one more kiss. When my patience fails or she begins to look weepy, I take a breath and shuttle her off to school, dance practice or to her bed.

If she stands around too long, looking worried in front of me, I’ll feel my own anxiety begin to surface. Even though I’m her mother, and I’m supposed to know what’s good for her, I’m not that sure of myself. When she comes to me for help with Czech homework that’s too difficult or a request to be allowed to cross the big street (the one with a tram line running through the middle of two lanes of car traffic) near her school alone, I’m not sure how to respond. I don’t even know what to say when she asks for help choosing clothes. I do offer my opinion, but it never seems to be the one she wants to hear. In these moments, I want someone to cross fingers and hold thumbs for me, too.

Sometimes I blame living in a foreign country for my heightened state of anxiety, deluding myself that if I lived in the U.S. I’d be more confident in my parenting decisions. That I wouldn’t second-guess myself or my children. Then I remember that I’ve dealt with anxiety most of my life. I hate to tell my nearly 11-year-old daughter that she might have to get used to dealing with it in hers.

Modern parenting dialogue uses the term “helicopter parents,” to describe parents who hover at a distance and then swoop in for the great save. writes “Helicopter parenting refers to “a style of parents who are over focused on their children,” says Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety near Detroit. Although the term has been around since the late 1960s, it became a dictionary entry in 2011.

By not allowing their children to work through their own problems, parents today aren’t letting children make mistakes or fail when they are still kids. This creates problems for children in later years as adults when their parents aren’t available anymore to swoop in for the rescue. I understand the principle of letting my children become more independent, but putting theory into practice isn’t always as easy, especially when an anxious mother and an anxious daughter are involved.

I’m trying to take lessons from my husband. He’s been telling me to “take it easy” since the day we met. When I watch him intervene in settling a dispute or refereeing an argument in our house, his method is to let our children try to solve the problem on their own. More often than not, they do. I’ve watched other Czech mothers use this technique in a group situation, and I have often thought I’d rather step in and sort out the disagreement before someone’s feelings got hurt. But I am learning.

The other day I was walking with Oliver and Anna to a sports practice to show them the way so that they could do it the following week on their own. As we walked, they began to complain – the walk was too long, their bags were too heavy, they wouldn’t be able to remember the way, couldn’t I drive them? Fed up, I asked why they were complaining so much. Oliver turned and said, “It’s because you’re here to listen.”

At the next corner, I told them to go on ahead of me. They grumbled a little, Anna more than Oliver, but I knew they remembered the way. I said I’d wait for them after the practice. Fingers crossed and thumbs held, I let them continue on alone. When they didn’t arrive at our meeting spot an hour later, I went to ask the teacher on duty if she’d seen children who matched Anna and Oliver’s description. Before she had time to check, we both heard laughing voices echoing in the corridor. Anna and Oliver came racing toward me telling me how they’d stopped at the stationery store to look in the window, saying that the walk was great and asking if next time they could bring their own money with them to buy new pens.

I can’t make my daughter’s nerves disappear, but I can give all my children a chance to learn that making mistakes doesn’t have to have dire consequences. Learning life lessons one day at a time seems a whole lot easier than waking up one day and realizing that you are a grown-up who’s still afraid of messing up.

I cross my fingers and hold my thumbs because I know I am sending my children out in a world that’s sometimes big and scary. I think positive thoughts about their futures as a silent mantra to allay my own anxiety. It’s become my family’s daily ritual. It’s how I’m able to show them that, yes, it’s okay to go out there on their own.

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